Keeping zoo animals healthy

How do you treat all the different zoo animals?
30 April 2019

Interview with 

Yve Morrin, Shepreth Wildlife Park


A yellow breasted Capuchin monkey eating some leaves


How do you keep all the different kinds of animals that live in zoos happy and healthy? To find out, Adam Murphy went to the Shepreth Wildlife Park to meet Yve Morrin, a zookeeper, with a laundry list of animals, including owls, red pandas, and some naughty monkeys under her care...

Yve - They all have very different needs. Monkeys, for example, are quite challenging to work with because they are very smart, they're very curious animals, they'll challenge you. They will test your padlocks after you leave to make sure that you've locked them properly so you have to be very security conscious. Sometimes I can't go in wearing sunglasses because they'll take them and run away with them,  and they seem to do it almost as a way of teasing you. They know they're being cheeky and they do it for fun.

Whereas animals like owls, thinking about their biological need. Providing the right sort of nesting boxes and knowing when they've got seasonal moults coming on or when they're about to lay eggs and so on. So it's knowing all your different animals' biological needs, veterinary needs, husbandry needs, psychological needs as well.

Adam - Now when one of them unfortunately gets sick, how can you tell and what do you do?

Yve - You start off with a distance exam. Distance exams are incredibly important for zookeepers because it's possible for animals to hide when they're feeling ill. So an animal might be limping from a distance, you see that. You come up close to it and suddenly it's not limping and you think that's a bit strange. But you have to remember that these animals still have wild instincts, and their wild instincts are to hide anything that's physically wrong with them. They hide that because, obviously, a predator is going to look for the weakest animal and it's going to single them out for attack. So they are conditioned pretty much to try and disguise illness, so it can be very difficult to spot unless they know you're not looking at them.

But then when we do a close-up exam we look for any problems with any of the orifices, for example; eyes, nose, ears, and the ones lower down. We also look for what comes out of an animal. But, you know, I've had animals in the past, monkeys in particular, if you have a good relationship with them, if they have a wound they may actually even come and show you - look, I've got this, can you treat it please.

Adam - And then how would you go about treating it for the different animals?

Yve - It can be difficult with some animals. There are lots of different methods by which you can treat animals. Obviously you can give them oral medication. Now that's one of the easiest ones if you've got an animal that's greedy. So I recently had a routine faecal done for my red pandas; they came back having an illness. Now they didn't show any signs at all that they were sick. They probably weren't sick, they were just carrying a parasite,  so it was just a simple case of oral medication for them and the easiest way for me to do it was to inject the medication into grapes, and then feed them the grapes.

Now if we've got something more serious going on, we may actually have to do a physical catch-up for an animal, manipulate it, hold it, and inject it and that can be really stressful. So what I'm doing with some of my animals is I am training them to voluntarily take an injection. That is quite stressful for an animal and they have to build up a lot of trust in you to understand what you're doing but usually, you know, a banana helps.

Adam - What about if it's something more serious, would you ever intervene say surgically?

Yve - Yes we do, frequently. Now if it's a small animal we have to bring it into the vet room. A little gas mask goes over their nose, and then we can do surgery on them. With big knockdowns of a dangerous animal, such as tigers that we have here, or in the past I've seen knockdowns of chimpanzees happening. That actually has to happen for security's sake in the animal's enclosure, so the vet will usually dart the animal . Once the animal is asleep we all have to be incredibly careful that it really is asleep. There's  all sorts of tests that the vet can do, and then the surgery takes place right there, on the ground in the animal's enclosure. Everyone is being very safety conscious; you've usually got a team of people' you've got someone watching the door making sure that if the animal wakes up everyone can run out quickly. Once it all is finished we leave the enclosure, the vet reverses the sedative and then hopefully everything will be fine.

Adam - Is there a tension between doing everything you can to help an animal and letting nature take its course?

Yve - Sometimes you do have to make a judgement call over what's in the animal's best interest and what's in its best welfare. And euthanasia does happen at zoos, but it's always under the vet's advisement and in cases where the animal is suffering, and has illnesses that are causing it pain that are never going to get better again, and we do make those decisions. Every single time it breaks your heart but, you can be comforted by the fact that you know that you actually did make the best decision for that animal.

Adam - Why is what you do here important? Why do we keep animals in zoos; what's the purpose of keeping them here?

Yve - Our yellow breasted Capuchins are representatives of their species. There are only about 185 individuals left in the wild along coastal Brazil and that number is declining every year. It's getting to the point where that is not a viable breeding population - 185 individuals breeding in the wild do not have the genetic diversity to actually be sustainable. So one of the things that zoos do is we do conserve genetic variability. Now, obviously, we can't just release our captive Capuchins into the wild right now because they'll just be in danger of poaching and deforestation the same way as their wild cousins are. But, in the future, we can be maintaining that genetic stock in order to release once we're able to re-wild if humanity ever wakes up and gives us a place to release them into, then we can do that.


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